Last month I tried to find out what Amazon teaches about people who have an Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card from Chase. Neither Chase nor Amazon would give me a straight answer. Chase’s spokesperson, Mary Jane Rogers, even gave me… a wrong answer by telling me Amazon fell into a category that it didn’t.
Rogers felt bad about this and got in touch via email to apologize after the story got out, asking if she could do anything to help. I told her I still wanted to know what Amazon teaches abpeople’s use of the card, especially when they use it to buy things from places other than Amazon. She came back with this:
“As a third-party partner of Chase, Amazon does receive customer data from Chase that is necessary to administer the program. For example, Chase offers rewards balances to facilitate Shop with Points purchases,” Rogers wrote. “However, Chase does not provide Amazon with individual transaction data with specific merchants.”
That sounds reassuring at first glance, but I spoke to an anonymous source who is familiar with how data sharing works between Chase and Amazon. While this person was concerned that Chase and Amazon aren’t more transparent about what information changes hands, the person said it’s “not so nefarious”.
“Chase tells Amazon, ‘Your consumers love doing this. They spend on average this, or in total this,” said this person on the phone. “They might even segment those consumers, but they always anonymize the consumers and deal with them collectively. Amazon knows me on their site, but they can’t de-anonymize me based on those aggregated reports.”
The person told me that neither Chase nor Amazon see what a cardholder actually bought, only where they bought it, and that what Chase passes on to Amazon is not individualized.
Based on what this person told me, it sounds like if I use my card to buy an $80 Rock n’ Play baby sleeper from Target, Amazon can see in a report that a person in my zip code has $80 issued from a merchant with a generic code describing stores such as Target, Walmart, and others. Or my purchase could be included in a larger report that $300,000 was spent that month by cardholders in my zip code at Target.
Of course Amazon knows a lot about those cardholders because they all shop at Amazon, so when it gets a report on spending in a zip code, it has a pretty good idea of which of its cardholders live in that zip code.
Based on my conversation with this source, I sent Rogers the following email:
So this statement – “Chase does not provide Amazon individual transaction data with specific merchants” – seems to leave a lot of room open.
For example, Amazon receives the total spend from all cardholders at specific merchants each month. Or it could be that a group of people in a specific zip code receive the total spend from specific merchants. Or Amazon could get my transaction data every month, but coded to categories of sellers. Or Amazon can be told how much I spend on my card each month. Or Amazon could get a list of the merchants I spend money on and the total I spent, but not how much I spent at each.
Or does Amazon *only* get my name and how many Amazon Points I’ve accumulated in the month?
I would like more specific information about what information is shared with Amazon, rather than statements that obscure what data is shared. Is that possible?
“I’m afraid our statement goes as far as I can go,” Rogers said. Amazon has not responded to a request for comment.
The most frustrating thing about this exercise is that I think the answer is actually kind of boring, but Amazon and Chase prefer to keep what happens to the data generated by their slate gray cards in a black box.
Unless we get more laws that give us the right to ask companies what they do with our data, such as the a recently deceased in California, black boxes like these will remain the norm. Unfortunately, California law won’t go into effect until 2020, so I can’t use it to pry open this particular box just yet.
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